From a Need for Hygiene to Environmental Racism

From the age of Thomas Jefferson and on, environmental racism in the United States and ideas about waste and cleanliness have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how society’s refuse has been managed.

Man holding two full trash bags

"Clean and White" addresses the destructive stereotype of whites being “clean” while all other races are “dirty.”

Photo by Fotolia/nikolayshubin

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Clean and White (New York University Press, 2016) by Carl A. Zimring tells the history of the corrosive idea that ethnic “purity” is tied to cleanliness. This far-reaching mindset connecting waste and race began during a chaotic time for the nation—a time of emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society after the Civil War. Hygiene became a central aspect of white identity, especially as certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. The material consequences of environmental racism expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste disposal systems and environmental inequalities that endure even today.

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Thomas Jefferson’s Ideal

Few Americans embodied the tensions of the new republic quite like Thomas Jefferson. An Enlightenment scholar who held slaves, and a champion of rural farm life whose presidency saw unprecedented industrial urbanism in the United States, Jefferson’s thoughts and actions reflected his country’s growing concerns about science, race, public health, and the role of government in the lives of the citizenry.

Although he died so destitute that his fellow Virginians raised money for him via lottery, Jefferson spent his final days on his beloved plantation, Monticello. It was there he drew his final breath at fifty minutes past noon on July 4, 1826, as the nation celebrated its fiftieth birthday. His final public utterance took stock of the nation he helped build, declaring it an enlightened land of liberty: “All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refreshed our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

Jefferson’s desire to live and die at Monticello reflected his vision of the young country he helped build. He was as worldly as any American of his time, an educated man and educator who took such pride in letters that the script he chose for his tombstone identified him as author of the declaration of American independence, founder of the state of Virginia for religious freedom, and, ultimately, father of the University of Virginia. Independence, religious freedom, and education were more important to the man in his dying days than the title he held as third president of the United States of America.

Jefferson chose to spend his final days on his plantation, a choice consistent with the values he had espoused for more than half a century. He saw himself as a farmer and his country as a society of farmers working together in a nation where none are king and all are learned equals. For Jefferson, the American farm was a symbol of self-reliance and egalitarian democracy, an “equilibrium of agriculture, manufactures and commerce… essential to our independence.” Cultivating the land produced people of “substantial and genuine virtue” while those involved in manufacture risked “subservience and venality.” In contrast, he found the great cities of Europe as “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man” and felt that health and virtue could only thrive away from the polluted, impoverished urban slums. Far from the corruption of Europe, free people working the land had built a rugged, independent nation.

Long after Jefferson’s death, his ideas continued to shape the nation he helped found. Most obviously, this was true in the laws he crafted, but his ideal of a democracy of farmers independent from Europe became one of the most enduring American values. One reason for the power of this idea is what it grew in reaction against. Jefferson worried that developments in Europe were counterproductive to enlightened society, and he hoped to spare the United States the mistakes of European society. The dangers of monarchy involved accidents of birth determining political power rather than demonstrated ability among a national of equals. America, however, was a grand experiment. Jefferson’s ideal sought to preserve some ideas and privileges of European society in an un-corrupted land where merit reigned supreme.

The Dirty Cities

Although Jefferson valued the European statesmen and scholars he befriended in Paris, he hated much of what he saw in France’s largest city. Industry belched smoke into the air and chewed up the bodies of the many to make profits for the few. The poverty and filth of large cities disgusted him when he traveled in Europe, and that disdain stayed with him when he returned to America. Even as he grudgingly accepted during his presidency that urban industry was beneficial to the young republic’s economy, he never warmed to love cities. Three years before his death, Jefferson opined that city life was an invitation to “vice and wretchedness.”

Jefferson’s utopia was a farmer’s paradise where all farmers owned land and shared comparable shares of wealth, political power, and stewardship over thriving natural wonders. Land for Jefferson was meant to be tilled, not turned into city blocks and settings for great buildings or large factories. In Paris he mused about the possibility of avoiding manufacturing industries altogether in his native land, relying instead on imported manufactures from Europe as Americans focused on the business of farming the fertile, wild lands. A nation of farmers, Jefferson argued, lacked the degradation and inequality Jefferson found in Paris and London. For Jefferson, rural Monticello represented exceptional American values.

Urban grime was matter out of place; rural soil, conversely, was part of the natural order. On American farms, Jefferson believed, men interacted with the soil in ways that invigorated both. For the Virginian farmer, soil was the essence of his labor, and rich Virginian soil was capable of “elaboration into animal nutriment” and produced “rich fruits and grains.” Jefferson contrasted the fertile New World soil with those parts of Europe where “the poverty of the soil, or poverty of the owner, reduces [European domestic animals] to the same scanty subsistence.”

Jefferson explicitly categorized farm work as orderly and natural in his contrast with manufactures:

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistance, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers.

In this language, soil is not chaotic nor dangerous; it is as natural to the farmer as his own air and work.

In the small, agricultural communities of his ideal, he boasted: “You will seldom meet a beggar [whereas in] the larger towns indeed they sometimes present themselves. These are usually foreigners, who have never obtained a settlement in any parish. I never yet saw a native American begging in the streets or highways.” To be clear, the native Americans Jefferson referenced were colonists of European origin.

By the time Jefferson took the oath of office as president in 1801, his ideal was already giving way to the ills he feared. American industry grew in the early nineteenth century, and with it, American cities grew, and grew quickly. When he died in 1826, New York’s population had well exceeded 100,000, was fast on its way to the 202,589 enumerated in the 1830 Census, and would continue its growth into the kind of metropolis Jefferson had despaired of on his European visits. At the dawn of the U.S. Civil War, more than a million people lived within the boundaries of what we presently know as New York City, and well over 100,000 people lived in each of Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago (the latter of which was not incorporated until1833). The United States under President Jefferson’s watch urbanized quickly, transforming the nation.

As American cities grew, so did the inequality, degradation, and diseases Jefferson feared would come of industrial cities. If Jefferson had a dour opinion of European cities, what he saw at home could hardly change his mind. The historian Suellen Hoy characterizes the colonial cities as “conspicuously unclean.” Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City were small compared to London or Paris, but they, too, were plagued with disease and dirt. Little in the way of sanitary infrastructure served these urban populations. Available drinking water was limited; Philadelphia in 1771 had only 120 public wells to draw water for drinking and firefighting. Philadelphians were at risk of contaminated water, and a series of yellow fever epidemics led to the development of a more extensive public water system in the 1790s. This, too, proved inadequate for the growing population; at no time in Thomas Jefferson’s life could the people of America’s largest city be free of worry about their water. Similarly, ad hoc water systems served the people of Boston and New York City. Mains of hollow pine logs served (when they didn’t rot) the few hundred Bostonians that could afford to pay $10 a year. Most residents relied on wells dug where excrement and other filth could contaminate the water.

American cities experienced dangerously unsanitary conditions that produced regular epidemics of yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, and other infectious diseases. Part of the problem was population growth overwhelming the local environment’s capacity to supply clean drinking water. Residents of the three largest cities, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, relied on wells they dug in their increasingly congested neighborhoods. Writing of Philadelphia in 1798, the architect of the U.S. Capitol Benjamin Henry Latrobe found obvious links between poor water sanitation, overcrowding, and regular outbreaks of yellow fever. “The houses being much crowded, and the situation flat, without subterranean sewers to carry off the filth, every house has its privy and its drains which lodge their supplies in one boghole sunk into the ground at different depths.” Thousands drew their drinking water from this environment, as urban families pumped from wells close to the polluted streets, risking all manner of infectious diseases.

Yellow fever epidemics were common. An outbreak killed 5,000 Philadelphians in 1793, and another killed more than 1,600 in New York City five years later. The conditions Latrobe described forced civic leaders to install a public water system, but it failed to keep up with population growth and civic needs. It would be half a century before Philadelphians could enjoy safe, dependable water on a regular basis.

The risks of human waste from households contaminating water were joined by waste from other sources. Nuisance trades such as soap-making, animal slaughter, and tanneries produced noxious odors, sounds, and runoff. Horses were abundant owing to their use to haul goods and people across town; the animals left thousands of tons of manure in the streets and, after dropping dead from overwork, their carcasses contributed to the solid waste problem. Chickens, goats, and hogs were kept for food, dogs and cats were kept as pets; excrement from all contaminated streets and water supplies.

The mounting sanitary challenges facing American cities threatened to replicate the ills Jefferson witnessed in Paris. The Paris Jefferson knew in the 1780s had a population of over half a million people, or more than twenty times the population of any contemporary American settlement. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, the United States, like most of the world at the time, was primarily rural. The largest urban area was New York City; the Census that year measured its population (totaling Manhattan) at 60,515. If we consider all areas that would become the present five boroughs, that population would be 79,216. Ten years later, New York’s population had jumped to 96,673. Compared to Paris, these smaller, newer cities had fewer sanitation problems. The public health historian John Duffy argues that if we compare colonial cities with similar British and European towns “nearly all Europeans visiting the colonies in the eighteenth century commented upon the spaciousness, orderliness, and relative cleanliness of American towns.” Still, American cities had more problems finding and consuming clean drinking water than did the smaller villages in the countryside. Life in Monticello was safer than life in New York City.

During Jefferson’s lifetime, Americans who lived in cities were the minority. Most Americans enumerated in the nation’s Census of Population between 1790 and 1910 were rural and not directly concerned with the uncertainty of urban water supplies. Changing population patterns, however, made more Americans vulnerable to the dangers of the cities. In the 1820s, cities multiplied and expanded, greatly increasing out- breaks of cholera and yellow fever. Jefferson died at a time when urban residency was a greater threat to Americans’ health than ever before.


Reprinted with permission from Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States by Carl A. Zimring, published by New York University Press, 2016.